Say Buy-Buy: Psychology professor says subtle marketers are selling kids, and their parents, a lot of junk

By Janice Gaston
Winston Salem Journal


If you think you can protect your children from commercialism simply by monitoring their TV viewing, forget it.

“Commercials are so 20th century,” said Susan Linn, an author and psychologist. “The marketing of today is not like marketing when you were a kid.”

Today, marketers know how to insinuate brands into every aspect of children’s lives, she recently told an audience of parents and teachers at Summit School. Marketing strategies, honed by psychologists and delivered through the latest technological means, zero in on children like heat-seeking missiles. The money spent on marketing to children has grown from $100 million in 1983 to $16.8 billion today.

Linn, a psychology instructor at Harvard Medical School, is co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the author of Consuming Kids. Her Web site is

Today’s children can expect to be bombarded with commercial messages from the cradle to the grave. Successful marketing to children contributes to childhood obesity, eating disorders, precocious sexuality, youth violence, family stress and materialism, she said.

Companies start working on parents as soon as their children are born. One example of successful marketing is the sale of videos and DVDs said to stimulate babies’ intellects, such as the Baby Einstein series.

“If you take one thing away from this talk - there’s no evidence at all that the screen medium is educational for babies,” Linn said. She recommends that babies under the age of 2 not be exposed to any screen media. So does the American Academy of Pediatrics, which issued a policy in 1999 urging parents to bring up babies in an environment free of electronic media.

Many parents use TV as a baby sitter. The more TV children watch, the less they connect to their parent, she said. She speaks against car DVD players that parents use to entertain children and school officials use to keep students occupied on class trips.

“Every screen-free moment for children is a gift to them,” she said. “Do we want to raise a generation of children who are bored or anxious if they are not in front of a screen?”

But most children, even little ones, do spend hours each day staring at a TV screen. What do they watch? Cartoons, movies and TV shows filled with charming characters.

“The whole program is a commercial for everything it sells,” Linn said. “Babies fall in love with these characters - Clifford the Big Red dog, Blue’s Clues, Care Bears, Cat in the Hat, Shrek, Elmo.” Children learn at an early age to ask for - or point to - items containing images of their favorite characters. Elmo appears on burp cloths and bibs, teething blankets and toddler bedding.

One woman in the audience admitted to creating a problem when she bought Elmo-decorated diapers for her granddaughter. The child, now nearly 2, won’t let caregivers change her diapers unless they use the Elmo diapers.

“She screams,” the woman said. “I’m going to go home and get rid of them.”

Food items make especially good marketing tools. The cartoon character of SpongeBob SquarePants appears on containers of macaroni and cheese, popsicles, cheese crackers and fruit snacks.

When it comes to character-related food, Linn said, “It’s not that it’s good for you, that it makes you healthy. They hardly even say it tastes good anymore. It’s because their favorite character is on the box.”

Marketers are particularly adept at connecting products to movies. Linn said that one Star Wars movie produced 16 food promotions involving 24 brands of junk food. For an M&M’s promotion, packs of candy were decorated with 75 scenes from the movie.

“Seven-to-10-year-old kids really like to collect things,” Linn said. “Now everything comes in a series.”

Once in a while, a character promotes something healthy to eat. McDonald’s recently announced a tie-in with Shrek the Third that includes a Shrek meal of white-meat chicken nuggets, apple slices and low-fat milk. But Shrek’s image will also appear on special offerings of Cheetos, which turn kids’ mouths green instead of orange; sugar-filled Skittles candies, and E.L. Fudge Double-Stuffed cookies.

“When childhood obesity is a major public-health problem, why in the world are we marketing junk food to children?” Linn asked.

Magazines, movies and television promote images of rail-thin women as role models for young girls. Barbie dolls offer distorted images of the female body.

Dolls and other toys marketed to girls also promote sexual images that many parents find inappropriate.

“I never thought I would see being nostalgic for Barbie,” Linn said. “That was until I met the Bratz.” Bratz, she said, promote a hard edge, “like mainstream porn.” The dolls score points for representing many cultures. But critics describe the dolls, with their oversize eyes, pouty lips and provocative wardrobes, as edgy, streetwise and tarty.

Hasbro Toys came up with a line of dolls, with plans to market them to girls ages 6 to 9, based on the Pussycat Dolls, a singing group known for naughty lyrics and sexy dancing. Linn’s group started a letter-writing campaign against the dolls, and Hasbro scrapped the plans.

She urges parents to e-mail their elected representatives and the Federal Trade Commission when they have complaints about marketing to children. She tells them to talk to older children about how marketing works and how they are being sucked in by it. And she tells parents to examine their own patterns of consumption to make sure that they aren’t setting bad examples for their children.

“That’s the way we’re going to be able to change things,” she said. “This is not hopeless. It is overwhelming.”